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Legal careers becoming accessible in Singapore?

Posted by: Laurence Simons 07/03/13

The number of private practice jobs available in the Asian city-state of Singapore is likely to increase over the coming years as changes in the regulatory environment and a desire to secure foreign investment mean more Qualifying Foreign Law Practice (QFLP) licenses are issued to interested firms.

While the motivation of Singapore's government is clear, what's the thinking behind the move for the international legal companies tripping over their feet to get into the Asian market?

If you guessed 'for the fine cuisine' or 'to check out all the yachts', then you're sorely mistaken. Singapore is one of the continent's financial powerhouses, the only Asian country with AAA credit ratings from all of the major rating agencies.

In addition to being one of the biggest economic centres in the world, Singapore has a bustling port and a strong import and export market, ensuring that business-focused lawyers won't find themselves with their feet on the desk throwing balled-up bits of paper at a bin all day.

However, Singapore's legal system remained relatively parochial until quite recently, thanks to strict regulations on foreign firms making their way into the market similar to those found in India.

That has all changed, with ten QFLP licenses issued to some of the biggest names in international law, including Allen and Overy, Clifford Chance, Jones Day and Linklaters.

Andrew Ong, partner at domestic firm Rajah & Tann, told the Lawyer that many international companies that have acquired these licenses will concentrate on so-called offshore work - that is, using Singapore as a convenient base from which to practice in south-east Asia as a whole.

With global diversification the current buzzword for many major law companies keen to escape the economic travails of more developed countries, it is possible that a further round of QFLP offerings could be on the cards.

This is good news for multinational firms, but what impact will it have on Singaporean practices?

"With competition for regional work showing no sign of waning the latest batch of QFLPs may step up efforts to compete for local clients, talent and retention, which could be a game-changer. Partners with a ready local network of clients will be eyed and competition could lead to business costs spiralling, putting a squeeze on profits," Mr Ong said.

Unsurprisingly, this is not proving a factor in the computations of international law companies.

Stephen J Brogan, managing parter at Jones Day, suggested that the QFLP issues "will result in Singapore increasing its role as the essential centre of capital formation, cross border investment and dispute resolution" in Asia.